Can Himalayan David slay neighbour Goliath?
The curtain of the 13th SAFF Championship draws to a close today after the seven-time champions India take on debutant finalist Nepal in the closing match of the regional football extravaganza at Maldives' National Football Stadium in Male.
As Bangladesh and hosts Maldives have bowed out from the group stage, the enthusiasm has seemingly dropped among the local spectators and Bangladeshi expatriates, who kept the stadium bursting with energy of the deafening sounds of percussion and roar.
The turnout in the final, scheduled to get underway at 9:00 pm (Bangladesh time), is anticipated to be low with the Nepalese spectators being predicted to outnumber their Indian counterparts.
The two finalists had a contrasting start in this showcase football event of South Asia. India surprisingly struggled from the beginning with two successive draws before confirming their 12th final berth of SAFF Championship with two back-to-back victories while Nepal had a flying start, as they notched up two successive wins before crawling their way into their maiden final berth in the 28-year history of the regional competition.
The battle between Nepal and India is analogous to the fight between David and Goliath if the head-to-head record -- that saw India defeat Nepal 15 times against a single loss and five draws -- is taken into consideration.
Moreover, India possess someone like Sunil Chhetri in their ranks, who already struck four goals in the ongoing tournament while overtaking a 77-goal tally of the legendary Pele in the process. Thus, India has the ability to turn the tides in their favour even if they are having an off day on the field.
In the SAFF Championship's history, Nepal had the top result with a third-place finish during the inaugural edition in 1993 and since then, the Himalayan nation could not cross the hurdles of the semifinals in five attempts, during 1995, 1999, 2011, 2013 and 2018.
Leaving statistics and 'Chhetri factor' aside, there are not many striking differences between the two sides as the recent matches have witnessed evenly balanced battles even though India had the last laughs.
Before the current SAFF Championship began, India and Nepal played two friendly matches in which Nepal held their superior opponents to a draw in the first game before going 1-2 down in the second match. And in the group-stage match of the ongoing tournament, the Blue Tigers had to wait till the 82nd minute to ensure their victory.
For Nepal, playing the maiden final of SAFF Championship is a big motivation by itself, no doubt, however, they will definitely miss the service of their influential forward Anjan Bista, who earned a penalty kick and converted it against Bangladesh.
Having lost six times against India in the SAFF Championship so far, still, Nepal can derive inspiration from their lone victory, which happened in 2013's edition. So now, can Nepal ride against the tides of probability and write their name alongside former champions India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan? Or will India continue to have the bragging rights over their neighbours?